Kayaking: Inspiration

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A white kayak.

I never cease to be amazed by how, sometimes unrelated circumstances come together to shape or direct how life changes.

It now seems way back that I was gainfully employed. Reasonably happy in the job that I had done for most of my working life, but many times found myself internally screaming at the frustrations that came up in the course of a day's work. Sometimes so wound up that it was useless going to bed of an evening until one or two in the early hours. On the plus side, when things went right there was a sense of achievement that made things generally seem better and gave a certain amount of satisfaction. But with changes on the job, especially lately, those times became less frequent. Luckily I have usually been able to divorce leisure activities from work and they always provided some escape during the more trying times. Not least, but not only, has been h2.

During the last few years the 'recession' has bitten deep into most companies' resources and mine was not exempt. In 2008 the result was a round of redundancies which I escaped, and a 10% pay cut across the board... which I did not. The company soldiered on and generally speaking, so far, is weathering the storm. But for me the writing was on the wall. In July 2011 a new, universal job tracking system was introduced which is almost incomprehensible and requires more effort to be expended on updating the system in real-time than the job in question. Unfortunately, it's difficult to teach an old dog...etc.

From choice I had continued working past the time that retirement was due. Truth to tell, I have been split between wanting to stay on, or to mosey off into the sunset of retirement. After working all my life, to me retirement seems rather like being judged useless, surplus to requirement or past it. All in all, being of no further consequence. Over the years I've seen quite a number of colleagues retire. Almost without exception they couldn't wait to get away and many counted the days, hours even, before getting their watch. I've never been able to accept that attitude as it seems to me to be almost wishing your life away. I feel I've seen one too many take retirement and then pop their clogs a short time later, my father included, as the awful realisation of not being of any further use, sets in.

Anyway, during a 'good time' period, the management had the foresight to take on a young, virgin trainee in our office as cover against holidays/sickness/leavings, which seemed prudent. But by November last year the firm was experiencing another downturn in trade and the scuttlebutt had it that further cuts were being considered. It transpired that, in the main, those cuts took place in the upper levels of management when a couple of the big earners left, or received sideways promotion. I however was called into the main man's office and asked what my intentions towards the firm were.

Over this time Mrs D also retired from her job and was keen to see me stop working as well, to spend more time at home in an unstressed condition. So, taking that pressure into account as well as the fact that our department was now considered to be overstaffed, in the end I decided that it was time to call it a day and part amicably. No, I wasn't pushed into it, but I had the feeling that I would be on the short list for any further redundancies that were on the horizon. In fact, the firm was really quite reasonable about it all, so I jumped before I was pushed.

I left work for the last time on New Year's Eve, Saturday 31 December 2011. Since then, I've jobbed around the house, started to refurbish the rather neglected garden, grown a beard, started and lost interest in several h2 entries, been to the flix, had my teeth fixed, read a lot, started a blog and generally spent time contemplating my navel. Oh... and I've bought a kayak.

And so to the second part of the story...

These are my two sons.
The two of them got together in 2009 to do the Devizes to Westminster International Canoe Race. The photo you see is of them at Westminster after completing the 2010 race.

The DW is a race for single or double canoes or kayaks from Devizes in Wiltshire to Westminster, London, and is held annually over the Easter period. The course is 125 miles long, with the first fifty plus miles along the Kennet and Avon canal to where it joins the Thames at Reading. The next fifty odd takes competitors along the Thames to Teddington lock, after which the final seventeen miles is on the tidal part of the Thames to Westminster. But that's not all, during its course there are seventy-seven 'portages' to be negotiated, which is when the canoe has to be removed from the water on upstream of a lock and returned again on the downstream side. It is generally regarded as the toughest endurance race in the country, if not the world. In fact there are two styles of races taking place concurrently, aA four day event where the course is divided into four parts, each part completed in a day. Then there's the 'overnight' event which starts on the Easter Saturday morning and crews race non stop, through the night, to the finish, usually finishing sometime Easter Sunday. This event is only for two man crews, who are the turbo-nutters of the canoeing world. Each crew is allowed support vehicles to meet them at any point along the course, usually at portages, to feed and water them and provide encouragement when the going gets tough. On the 2010 event I had a minor hand in supporting my sons at two points, at Reading and at Marsh lock on the Thames.

The thing is that it's very difficult to describe the feelings and emotions that are generated during this race. Contestants are reduced to physical and mental exhaustion during the average twenty-four hours it takes to complete. The drop-out rate is very high as over a third of the overnight race entry don't make it to the end, and of those that do, many have to be assisted out of their boat at the end in a state of complete exhaustion. And there's every possibility of real injury: During that 2010 race I recall for instance, standing at a lock near Marsh at 3am, with a stream of portaging K2s being run past, on my right was a raging torrent of water from the adjacent weir and lying on my left, a contestant who had slipped and broken his leg, waiting for an ambulance. All this in the pitch blackness, illuminated only by torches carried by the competitors. But the psyche of the event also gets a hold of you when you witness it first hand. The sheer excitement and danger as it unfolds draws you in. Incidentally, one of the non finishers in this years race was Sir Steve Redgrave, but I expect he'll be back next year.

This Easter my eldest son did it again, this time with his old friend who had provided the main support for the 2010 race. He, like me, was inspired to give it a try and this year they finished under some of the most arduous circumstances. I acted as their support between Devizes and Reading, and saw them in at Teddington and at Westminster. It was at the end of the 2010 race, when I took the photo at Westminster, that the ill-formed idea that I might have a go at it the following year, took hold. But it wasn't to be. Work, and family illness put paid to that, at least temporarily. In fact it took until this year to resolve those issues.

Taking on a challenge like this isn't to be entered into lightly. I have only ever been in a kayak three times in my life. The last time was eighteen months ago, just before circumstances made it impossible for me to enter the DW for 2011. Truth is, that then I didn't really have sufficient time to get enough experience to stand any chance at all of completing the race, as work and family commitments would have limited my time to training at weekends and evenings only. It wouldn't have been impossible as in an earlier time I have run several marathons on the strength of minimal training, but I think that the DW requires, deserves even, more.

So, circumstances, which were mostly outside my control have given me both the time and inclination to try something that three years ago I hadn't even heard of. At the moment I'm having to aim for entry to the four-day race, as no one in their right mind would want to try the overnight race with a raw beginner. But, I have a full year to prepare for it and at least stand some sort of a chance of making it to the start line. With all this in mind I've bought into the kit that I'll need, and reserved a place on a short course on paddling a kayak, which begins tomorrow.

I suppose that what this rambling is all about is an attempt to come to terms with an unwanted situation and an acknowledgement that despite personal wants or needs, nothing ever stays the same. I have no idea if I'll ever get to the start line of the DW in 2013, but at the moment I'm going to stick my neck out and commit to it because if I don't do it now, then I probably never will. Either way, I don't think that it's going to leave much time for h2, but if I do manage to get to the start line, even if I don't finish, I will also commit to do an entry to submit for The Guide. That's assuming no-one else has already done it, of course.

Kayaking for Beginners Archive


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